Design Council

Founded in 1944 as the British Council of Industrial Design, the government-funded Design Council is responsible for encouraging and promoting high standards of industrial design. It was not the first British organization to undertake this mission. In 1914, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which promoted handcrafted products, turned its attention to industrial design and set up an offshoot, the Design and Industries Association. The Arts and Crafts influence was reflected in its motto, “Fitness for purpose.” The government first took an interest in industrial design in 1931, when the Board of Trade first proposed to set up the Council for Art and Industry, whose main purpose from its launch in 1934 was to mount exhibitions showing examples of good design. Ironically, it was during World War II, a period of material shortages and production constraints, that the government began to take a more active role in shaping the design environment. In 1942, the Ministry of Information recruited a number of leading British designers, including Herbert Read, Milner Gray, and Misha Black, to head a new Design Research Unit. The goal was to create an advisory and consultancy network to educate manufacturers to embrace the notion of “total design.”

The formation of the British Council of Industrial Design and its Scottish Committee was announced in December 1944 by the president of the Board of Trade. The stated objective of the council was “to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry.” Its motto, “Good design, good business,” reflected the government’s belief that design was a way of boosting product sales. The council’s staff grew from 10 in 1945 to over 1,000 in 1946. With the backing of the Board of Trade, the council mounted its first exhibition, “Britain Can Make It,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1946. Featuring 5,000 exhibits produced by 1,300 companies, the exhibition was visited by 1.4 million people. The products were carefully selected to convey the council’s notions of good taste in design to both consumers and manufacturers.

Gordon Russell, an influential British furniture designer whose career spanned the Arts and Crafts Movement and Modernism, took over as director in 1947. The council began to promote its ideas through publications (such as Design magazine, which was introduced in 1949), film strips, and displays. In 1951, the council undertook a national survey of British design, which generated the Design Index, a stock list of approved products, and a pictorial reference library. The most high-profile venture of the council in its early years was its contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. The festival was the brain-child of the Royal Society of Arts as a means of celebrating the centenary of the Great Exhibition. The role of the Council of Industrial Design was to choose 10,000 products of British manufacture for exhibition. Eight and a half million visitors attended the festival, which had its main site on the South Bank of the Thames in London.

In spite of the success of the Festival of Britain, the council felt that it was not getting its message across to the public. The pattern of sales of consumer products suggested that the majority of the public were attracted by the “cheap and cheerful” rather than the quiet good taste that the council espoused. The council felt that it needed a permanent showcase for good design. The result was the Design Centre for British Industries, a “shopping guide to well-designed British goods,” which opened in London in 1956. The Scottish Design Centre opened in Glasgow in 1957, which was also the year that the council introduced an annual design award. The Design Centre Awards, later renamed the Design Council Awards and then the British Design Awards, were originally restricted to consumer goods. They were later extended to capital goods, such as engineering products and car components, in 1974, to medical products in 1975, and computer software in 1986. In order to bring good design to the attention of a wider audience, the council introduced a black and white triangular label as a symbol to identify goods that met its design criteria. The label scheme was discontinued in 1988.

The council’s name was shortened to the Design Council in 1972. The 1970s was a period of consolidation and regional expansion. New offices were opened in Cardiff in 1974 and Belfast in 1978. In the 1980s, the council began to adapt to a changing political and business environment. In 1983, it introduced the Funded Consultancy Scheme, whereby eligible companies could claim free design consultancy services. New facilities were opened at the London Design Centre, including an Innovation Centre in 1985, a Materials Information Centre in 1988, and aYoung Designers Centre in 1989.

Further rethinks in the 1990s brought several changes of premises and a slimming down of the council’s functions. In 1990, the Design Council Scotland moved to a different location in Glasgow. A year later, the Design Council Northern Ireland also relocated to new offices in Belfast, while a new regional English office was opened in Leeds. The last of these relocations saw the council move its London headquarters from Haymarket to Covent Garden in 1998. In 1993, the government’s industry minister announced a comprehensive review of the Design Council in consultation with manufacturers, designers, and educators. The outcome of the review was that the council ceased to provide direct design consultancy services, transferring its consultancy database to the Chartered Society of Designers.

The end of the second millennium provided the opportunity for the council to relaunch itself. The Millennium Products initiative, managed by the Design Council, was launched in September 1997 by the prime minister. After three rounds of applications, a total of just over 1,000 Millennium Products were selected by the end of 1999. These design achievements were celebrated in the Spiral of Innovation artwork commissioned by the Design Council and installed in the Millennium Dome at Greenwich in London.